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How Do You Know You’re Right?

“How do you know you’re right?” When I was starting out as a critic, I asked this question to a male friend of mine. I really wanted to know the answer. I was 22 years old at the time; despite having three degrees from top universities and some intense training in the arts by then, I didn’t have much in the way of self-esteem. I didn’t know if my opinions were smart, or correct, or even worth thinking about. The few high-profile female critics I knew of — people like Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael — seemed a bit mannish, as if they had to give up a female part of themselves in order to compete. “How do you know you’re right?” I appealed, again. My friend shrugged, and said, in his lackadaisical way: “You just know. You don’t have to be right; just say what you think.”

I thought about this for a while. I really didn’t know. I did my undergrad work in neuroscience at MIT — a university which, at the time I was there, was something like 70 percent male. The entire place seemed set up for men, and a masculine perspective. There were fewer womens’ bathrooms than mens’ bathrooms on campus. In order to be taken seriously in math and physics classes, I felt as if I had to act more male than I was. I hacked my hair short and wore an military jacket, and pretended I was a boy.

When I was a teenager, I wanted things to be in black and white. It seemed as if women tended to mull things over more; they tended to overthink things, to wonder, to question, to worry about what they did wrong. This is a sweeping, brash generalization, to be sure, but I say this because I have 30 years of experience in being a woman. We seem given to uncertainty, to the part of the picture where edges blur into each other. Think of the cover of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, that hazy blur of deep pink. That’s the way I often feel. As if my mind is full of cotton-wool, as if the conventional rules of modern life have been upended. Fluid, amorphous, transient. Fueled by emotion, and the ineffable.

Now I’m much more confident in being female, and in the strength of being female. I grew my hair long and started wearing skirts instead of army jackets. I’m older, too, and I’m much more confident than I was when I was starting out. I’ve written plenty of articles; I’ve said plenty of things. When I wrote a small book on Brian Eno in 2008, which was finally released a few months ago, I found the massive response on the Internet fascinating, and a bit scary. I got paid extremely little to write the book; by my estimation, I spent about $10,000 of my own money to write it. I had a full-time job the entire time I was writing the book, so I wrote the book on nights and weekends, after work — that late evening hour when most people want to watch TV, or go to bed. I wrote the entire book using the Oblique Strategies cards to decide on each page’s content, as I explain in my introduction. I didn’t realize that such an odd little book would sell well, and I’m glad that it has. (I still haven’t made a cent off royalties.) I figured only my friends would read it. But I was stunned by the overwhelming response. At one end, I had authors I really admired — people like Neil Gaiman, Ed Park, and Henry Jenkins — telling me it was one of their favorite books of the past year. People who were enmeshed in the creative process — artists, musicians, writers — were the biggest fans of the book. (Amanda Palmer just told me she read it for a second time.) They got it. They got that the book wasn’t about Another Green World; it was about process. But some Eno ├╝ber-fans took issue with my book, and their opinions on the Net were vocal. Why did she spend so much time talking about Discreet Music, they wondered? Why was there so little in the way of a track-by-track analysis? They made themselves heard on Internet messageboards; they crowed their insults on user-generated consumer reviews. Anyone can write an Amazon book review, and despite the plethora of incredibly positive reviews my book had gotten in the actual press, the sprinkling of negative reviews really stung. Who were these guys on the Internet, I wondered, and why do they get themselves so wound up about my little book? When I was younger — when I asked questions to older critics like “How do you know you’re right?” — this sort of thing would have hurt more than it does now. Now, I’m better at defending myself. I know who I am, and what I’m about. I stunned myself, a bit, by writing a letter to The Wire (published in the April issue) defending my book against the barmy insults of an irate reader in the March issue. (I got a good review in The Wire‘s February issue, which you can read below.) When I was 25, and writing for The Wire a lot, I didn’t have the courage I do now. But now I have confidence in my opinions. And I know that my little book — whether I intended it to or not — is a book that divides readers.

I will tell you this: Chances are you will like my book very much, if you’re interested in the creative process. If feel you already know everything there is to know about Brian Eno, or you want a behind-the-scenes book about Another Green World — which I take great pains in the introduction to tell you the book is not — you may be disappointed. If so, I encourage you to take issue with me. Drop me a line and talk to me. I may or may not be interested in your issues, but I’ll take a look. For the nearly 5000 of you who have already bought this book in the few months that it has been out: I thank you for it. And I anxiously await your remarks on my next book about music, which will be three times as long as the Eno book, and about something completely different.


The inimitable Henry Jenkins, currently the Provost’s Professor of Communications, Journalism, and Cinematic Art at USC, was my mentor at MIT many years ago. Recently, he interviewed me about my book for his incredible website. The first part of the interview was posted today. Go here to read it.


I feel like I’ve been living out of a messenger bag for months now, ping-ponging around the world. Over the past two months, I’ve been in London, Berlin, Paris, Bordeaux, New York (four times), Cannes, Hamburg, Nice, and who knows where else. Right, Boston, where I live, apparently, though I’m not there much these days. Been feeling a profound sense of rootlessness lately.

I’ve gotten curiously adept at living out of a messenger bag, and my apartment filled with stuff–vinyl, art, chairs, turntables, vintage cameras, tea–feels decadent somehow. So much stuff. I arrived in New York on Friday, and I was surprised at how much it felt like home again. I lived in New York City for six years, but towards the end, Berlin and San Francisco beckoned, and I thought I’d never want to come back. Now I miss it, strangely, and I suspect I’ll be back there on a more permanent basis in the future.

Right now I’m on a brief visit to my parents’ house in Princeton, dredging up my teenage past in their cellar and finding myself, well, dredged in melancholy. Cassettes, CDs, and vinyl with yellowed Princeton Record Exchange labels. Books of poetry, dusty textbooks. Notes, diaries, and sketchbook scrawls. I’ve been thinking too much about the past lately. From here I head back to New York, and then back to my crazy sculptural treehouse-house in Boston on Tuesday. I’ll be back there for about ten days, before New York again, and then the West Coast in April.

On April 16th, I’m giving a talk in Seattle titled “Brian Eno, Cybernetics, and the Studio as Musical Instrument” at the Experience Music Project’s annual Pop Conference. The focus of the conference this year is music and technology–two subjects near and dear to my heart. From there, I head to Los Angeles. I’ll be speaking at Cal Arts in Pasadena on April 19th on art school, cybernetics, creativity and process, and, well, Eno.

In May, it’s looking likely that I’ll be back in the UK and Europe for a spell.

Later on in the horizon: I’ll be doing a reading at Joe’s Pub in New York on June 2nd with some of the other authors in the 33 1/3 series. On July 25th, I’ll be doing a conversation on sound art at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts – more on that once I know more.

The Wire on Another Green World

While browsing through magazines at the gift shop in the Palais de Tokyo in Paris a few weeks ago, I came across this very nice review of my book in the February issue of the Wire. It felt surreal and wonderful to read a review of my book in a magazine, from halfway across the world.

Electronic Music and Berlin: Saturday

I’ll be speaking at the Goethe-Institut in Boston on Saturday. Please come!

Electronic Music in Berlin: Film and Discussion

Electronica: Film and Panel Discussion
Saturday, February 13, 2010, 4:00 pm
Goethe-Institut Boston, 170 Beacon Street, Boston
Film has English subtitles; the discussion will be in English
Admission: Free

Panel Discussion with Tobias Thomas (DJ, Music journalist, Kompakt label), Tony Cokes (Brown University) and Geeta Dayal (music journalist)

Electronic music emanating from Germany is the focus of great attention worldwide. As part of the “Together Boston – The New England Electronic Music Festival,” the Goethe-Institut Boston takes a closer look at the electronic music scene in Berlin with the New England premiere of the film Berlin Calling and a panel discussion.